A messy, big play

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"An Undivided Heart,"  a co-production of Circle X and the Echo Theatre Company is a big play.

With 10 characters and almost as many subplots, playwright Yusuf Toropov is juggling a lot of ideas.

We begin with a priest and a mysterious black girl.  We're in a dream (or is it a prophecy?) and this young, adorable black girl is trying to get the priest to do something.  What exactly is unclear - and that's sort of the point.

Meanwhile, a guy who's new to town can't get his SUV out of the dump.  As the super-brusque pregnant townie with a cigarette tells him - sign says the dump closes at 4 pm.  It's after 4pm. Dump's closed. Tough luck ...but then she goes into labor.

Then we see a buddhist master carefully arrange her robes to sit for meditation.

I haven't even mentioned the other priests or the chemical poisoning the town, or the sick mother with cancer, or the dead baby - let's just say, there are a lot of balls in the air.

Watching it, your inner dramaturg knows all of these stories are somehow connected but also there's probably a macguffin or two in these plots.  Both, it turns out, are true.

There's a cleaner play inside of "An Undivided Heart" one where a couple of these plots are pruned and a priest doesn't inexplicably lip-sync Tammy Wynette's "Stand by your Man" - yes, that really happens - but that cleaner, less complicated play isn't this play.

What's surprising is how much of this all works - or maybe better to say, how compelling the central questions really are.  I won't give those secrets away because the engine of the play is really about solving a mystery and putting all the piece of the puzzle together.

There's also an easier production of this play than director Chris Fields has created: one that isn't a co-production between two companies with two casts; one that embraces some of the comedy in the early scenes; one that’s a little more focused.

But again, that's not this production.

Part of the pleasure of seeing "An Undivided Heart" in an intimate theater in Los Angeles is knowing this is theater that doesn't exist in other cities.  Certainly no regional theater could afford a 10 person cast for a play by an emerging playwright without major credits. What other local theater community could field a cast with character descriptions that range from pre-teen black girl, buddhist master, a Cardinal, a trio of other priests - (you get the idea)?  And all of these folks need to be able to carry the story - to really act. That’s not easy.

As more one-person shows take up more slots at more theaters out of fiscal necessity, big messy plays in small theaters become more critical and important to the ecosystem.  

Is "An Undivided Heart" a perfect production?  No, it isn't and that's part of what makes it so important.

"An Undivided Heart" plays as a co-production of Circle X and Echo Theatre Company in Atwater Village through April 22nd.

Photo credit: Darret Sanders.